A new report on abuses of religious freedom in China “misses the big picture” when it comes to Christians, according to China-watcher Ian Johnson.

Johnson says Freedom House’s new report, The Battle for China’s Spirit, focuses too much on the cross removals in Zhejiang Province and misses “the most important point … that virtually none of these churches have been closed.”

In his opinion piece for CNN, Johnson adds: “All [the churches] continue to have worshipers and services just like before. In addition, the campaign never spread beyond the one province. Some pessimists see it as a precursor for a campaign that might spread nationally, but so far that hasn’t happened and there is no indication it will.

“While most of the facts in the study are correct, the context feels more negative than the religious world I’ve experienced. Of course it is in the nature of such reports to be critical — this is what watchdogs like Freedom House are for — but it feeds into an overall assumption in western countries that the Chinese government is a major persecutor of religion.”

However, Johnson concedes that “all this could change”, depending on the outcome of the new government regulations on religion issued last autumn.

“Given the predilections of the Xi administration, these new religious regulations could be harshly enforced,” he concedes. “We could see unregistered churches forced to join government churches. And we could see outreach programs closed down.

“If this happens, then I would say that Protestantism would be suffering from a ‘high’ degree of persecution. And if it happens we’ll need hard-hitting reports condemning it in no uncertain terms. But until this crackdown really occurs, we might be missing the forest for the trees.”

A second CNN article offers a competing perspective of the report. Authors James Griffiths and Matt Rivers meet an underground Catholic priest, Paul Dong, and highlight that just by conducting Mass in a “dingy backyard”, he is breaking the law.

Whatever the level of persecution Christians are facing in China, their article, and Freedom House’s report, show that it certainly exists.

“Millions of Chinese – particularly Christians – practise their religion outside the control of the Party, worshiping in private or at so-called ‘house churches’ like Paul Dong’s,” they write.